Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Russian Launch Failures Aren’t a Bug, They’re a Feature

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 26, 2018
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A Proton takes a nose dive at Baikonur. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Edior

Over the past few years, I’ve been keeping track of Russia’s annual launch failures. For reasons I can’t quite recall, the table I’ve used only went back to 2009.

Recently, I saw a graphic on a Russian website about launch failures, and I realized I hadn’t gone back far enough. So, I dug into the records of the last 30 years from 1988 through 2017, which covers Russia and the last four years of the Soviet Union.

And holy crap! There were a helluva lot of them. Launch failures are not a bug in the system, they’re a feature.

The table below shows all the failed and partially failed launches from 1988 to 2017. I’ve included the causes of the failures where possible. I wasn’t able to find causes for five of the launches; if anyone has reliable sources on these flights please let me know in the comments section.

1 January 18, 1988 Proton-K Blok-DM-2 Gorizont 25L Failure Third stage failure due to disintegration of propellant feed line
2 February 17, 1988 Proton-K Blok-DM-2 Uragan #23, Uragan #24, Uragan #25 Partial Failure Blok D failure caused by ingestion of debris
3 July 09, 1988 Soyuz-U Yantar-4KS1 #10 Failure
4 July 27, 1988 Soyuz-U Resurs-F1 Failure First stage engine failure.
5 November 11, 1988 Soyuz-U Yantar-4KS1 #11 Failure
6 June 9, 1989 Tsiklon-3 Okean-O1 #4 Failure
7 April 3, 1990 Soyuz-U Yantar-4K2 #51 Failure
8 June 21, 1990 Molniya-M (Blok-2BL) Kosmos 2084 Partial Failure Placed in an incorrect orbit. Satellite did not communicate with ground
9 July 3, 1990 Soyuz-U Yantar-4K2 #53 Failure
10. August 9, 1990 Proton-K Blok-DM-2 Ekran-M 14L Failure Third stage lost thrust due to a cleaning rag inside propellant feed system
11 October 4, 1990 Zenit-2 Tselina-2 #8 Failure First stage engine failure five seconds after launch.
12 June 25, 1991 Kosmos-3M Taifun-2 #26 Failure Second stage malfunction
13 August 30, 1991 Zenit-2 Tselina-2 #9 Failure Second stage explosion
14 February 5, 1992 Zenit-2 Tselina-2 #10 Failure Second stage failure
15 May 27, 1993 Proton-K Blok-DM-2 Gorizont 39L Failure Third stage failure
16 May 25, 1994 Tsiklon-3 Tselina-D #69 Failure Software error prevented third stage separation
17 March 28, 1995 Start Gurwin 1, EKV, OSCAR 29 Failure Failed to orbit, crashed into the Sea of Okhotsk
18 October 6, 1995 Kosmos-3M Kosmos 2321 (Parus #84) Partial Failure Second stage malfunction, placed in useless orbit
19 February 19, 1996 Proton-K Blok-DM-2 Raduga 33 Partial Failure Blok-DM-2 upper stage failed to restart to circularize orbit
20 May 14, 1996 Soyuz-U Yantar-1KFT #18 Failure Payload fairing disintegrated in flight
21 June 20, 1996 Soyuz-U Yantar-4K2 #76 Failure Payload fairing disintegrated in flight
22 November 16, 1996 Proton-K Blok-D-2 Mars ’96 Partial Failure Probe re-entered atmosphere after fourth stage failure
23 May 20, 1997 Zenit-2 Tselina-2 #19 Failure First stage failure
24 December 24, 1997 Proton-K Blok-DM3 AsiaSat 3 Partial Failure Fourth stage malfunction prevented satellite from reaching geosynchronous orbit; salvaged with lunar flyby
25 June 15, 1998 Tsiklon-3 Strela-3 #119, Strela-3 #120, Strela-3 #121, Strela-3 #122, Strela-3 #123, Strela-3 #124 Partial Failure Third stage malfunction left satellites in unintended elliptical orbit
26 September 09, 1998 Zenit-2 Globalstar 5, Globalstar 7, Globalstar 9, Globalstar 10, Globalstar 11, Globalstar 12, Globalstar 13, Globalstar 16, Globalstar 17, Globalstar 18, Globalstar 20, Globalstar 21 Failure Second stage shut down after guidance system failed
27 July 05, 1999 Proton-K Briz-M Raduga (34) (Gran 45L) Failure Second stage failure
28 October 27, 1999 Proton-K Blok-DM-2M Ekspress-A 1 Failure Second stage failure
29 December 24, 1999 Rokot-K RVSN 40 Failure Stage-separation fired before launch
30 November 20, 2000 Kosmos-3M QuickBird 1 (QB 1) Failure Second stage failed to ignite
31 December 27, 2000 Tsiklon-3 Gonets 7, Gonets 8, Gonets 9, Strela-3 #125, Strela-3 #126, Strela-3 #127 Failure Third stage failure
32  October 15, 2002  Soyuz-U Foton-M 1 Failure First stage exploded seconds after launch
33 November 25, 2002 Proton-K Blok-DM3 Astra 1K Failure Blok-DM3 left satellite in unusable orbit; spacecraft de-orbited 15 days after launch
34 Dec. 24, 2004 Tsiklon-3 Sich 1M, Micron 1 Partial Failure Booster failed to circularize orbit
35 June 21, 2005 Molniya-M Blok-ML Molniya-3K Failure Third stage failure
36 June 21, 2005 Volna-O Cosmos 1 Failure Cosmos Studios/The Planetary Society solar sail satellite failed to separate from booster third stage
37 August 10, 2005 Rokot Briz-KM Cryosat Failure Second stage failure; crashed in Arctic Ocean north of Greenland
38 February 28, 2006 Proton-M Briz-M Arabsat 4A (Badr 1) Failure Failed to reach usable orbit; de-orbited 24 days after launch
39 July 26, 2006 Dnepr BelKa 1, Baumanets 1, Unisat 4, PicPot, CP 1, CP 2, HAUSAT 1, ICECube 1, ICECube 2, ION, KUTESat-Pathfinder, Mea Huaka’i, MEROPE, Ncube 1, Rincon 1, SACRED SEEDS, AeroCube 1 Failure Engine failure
40 Sept. 5, 2007 Proton-M/Briz-M JCSat 11 Failure Second stage failure; booster and payload crashed in Kazakhstan
41 March 14, 2008 Proton-M/Briz-M AMC 14 Partial Failure Briz-M upper stage shut down 2 minutes early. Owner SES Americom declared satellite a complete loss. AMC 14 sold to US Department of Defense which manuevered into geosynchronous orbit using on-board thrusters.
42 May 21, 2009 Soyuz-2.1a/ Fregat Meridian 2 Failure Second stage shut down early, Fregat upper stage ran out of fuel trying to compensate. Satellite left in useless orbit, declared a loss by Russian military.
43 Dec. 5, 2010 Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3 Uragan-M #739, Uragan-M #740, Uragan-M #741 Failure Rocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
44 Feb. 1, 2011 Rokot/Briz-KM Geo-IK-2 No. 11 Failure Upper stage malfunction.
45 Aug. 17, 2011 Proton-M/ Briz-M Ekspress AM4
Failure Briz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
46 Aug. 24, 2011 Soyuz-U Progress M-12 Failure Third stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.
47 Nov. 8, 2011 Zenit-2SB/ Fregat Phobos-Grunt
Failure Zenit placed Phobos-Grunt in proper orbit. Spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after Fregat failed to fire.
48 Dec. 23, 2011 Soyuz-2.1b/ Fregat Meridian 5 Failure Third stage failure.
49 Aug. 6, 2012 Proton-M/ Briz-M Telkom-3, Ekspress MD2 Failure Briz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
50 Dec. 8, 2012 Proton-M/ Briz-M Yamal-402 Partial Failure Briz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
51 Jan. 15, 2013 Rokot/Briz-KM Kosmos 2482, Kosmos 2483, Kosmos 2484 Partial Failure Upper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.
52 Feb. 1, 2013 Zenit-3SL (Sea Launch)
Intelsat 27 Failure First stage failure.
53 July 2, 2013 Proton-M/DM-03 Uragan-M #748, Uragan-M #749,
Uragan-M #750
Failure First stage failure.
54 May 15, 2014 Proton-M/Briz-M Ekspress AM4R Failure Proton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
55 Aug. 14, 2014 Soyuz-STB/ Fregat Galileo FOC-1, Galileo FOC-2 Partial Failure Satellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage. Satellites made operational as part of Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation.
56 April 28, 2015 Soyuz-2.1a Progress 59P Failure Third stage failure left Progress in uncontrollable tumble.
57 May 16, 2015 Proton/Briz-M MexSat-1 Failure Third stage failure anomaly.
58 December 5, 2015 Soyuz-2.1v/ Volga Kanopus ST
KYuA 1
Partial Failure Primary payload Kanopus ST remained attached to upper stage, later burned up in atmosphere. Secondary payload KYuA 1 deployed successfully.
59 December 1, 2016 Soyuz U Progress MS-04 Failure Third stage failure. Progress supply ship burned up in atmosphere.
60 November 28, 2017 Soyuz 2-1b Meteor-M 2-1, 18 CubeSats Failure Fregat upper stage failure.

I’ve included some launches of some boosters such as Zenit and Dnepr boosters that were not totally Russian. Sea Launch uses boosters composed of Ukrainian and Russian elements. Until 2010, Sea Launch was owned by a consortium of Russian, Ukrainian, American and Norwegian partners. Since then, Sea Launch has been majority owned by Russian companies.

Part of the reason they’ve had so many failures is that historically, the Soviet and Russian space programs have tended to launch more times than any of the world’s space powers. When you figure that a certain percentage of all boosters will fail in some way, then you end up with a relatively high number.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the space program spread across three countries. Russia retained the majority of the production capacity while most of the rest was in Ukraine. The principle spaceport, Baikonur, ended up in the new nation of Kazakhstan.

The chaotic transition to a market economy in the 1990’s also left Russia’s space program in dire straits. Although Russian rockets became competitive in the satellite launch market, there was a serious lack of investment by the federal government in upgrading facilities and developing new space technologies.

Russian dominance in the launch market has been challenged in recent years due to failures, quality control problems, and the rise of SpaceX. Russia finished third in launches in 2016 with only 19 behind the United States and China. Russia improved its total to 21 in 2017, which was still low by historical standards.